Monday, March 31, 2008

Little bandits and a 1.6 kg lobster for lunch

We went to Franco's yesterday - Sierra Leone's answer to an Italian restaurant. It takes around an hour to drive there from where we are.

If the road was good it would take 20 minutes, but, the road is not good.

A popular activity of 5 - 9 year old Sierra Leonean boys these days seems to be setting up road blocks on the way to the beach in an attempt to swindle some cash. These 'road blocks' are usually made from a single bamboo stick or some grass that's been woven together. I'm not sure who actually does give them money, but I guess some people must otherwise I imagine they would be discouraged pretty quickly if faced with no returns. On the way there we passed five of these set-ups and on the way back the number had increased to seven. While these little kids are not threatening and usually politely clear the way, I have to admit I go to wind up my car window if I see slightly older (teenage) boys hanging around these road blocks and can't help but think of all the child soldiers who were forced to take up arms during this country's horrific conflict.

At Franco's we had a 1.6 kg grilled lobster, grilled barracuda and a just ok bottle of white wine. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday thanks very much.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Not Geneva

I should be writing this from Geneva but the trip was canceled at the 11th hour yesterday, so here we are in Freetown. Annoying, but let's move on. I've traveled a lot recently, so I can't really complain.

I have to admit, I was really looking forward to going to proper restaurants and proper markets and buying all sorts of amazing fresh produce to cook with. Thing is, when you live in a place like this, you really appreciate certain things. Like being able to use water from the tap, having cheese, being able to buy fresh not frozen or tinned vegetables (ok, I can buy some fresh things here, but it's basically limited to tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, chili and a few greens), flour that doesn't taste of mold, grains without weevils - you know, simple things, and knowing that when you turn on the light-switch the light will come on.

At the market in Ferney on our last trip to Geneva

Anyway, I'll just continue to dream about leeks and asparagus and all sorts of other delicious things. And if you can get these things easily, remember - you're lucky!

Oysters, crab and wine at Ferney market

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Exactly one year ago today...

On this day, exactly one year ago, Toshi and I arrived for the first time in Freetown - Sierra Leone. We really had no idea what we were in for. This was our first time to come to Africa (ok so I went to a wedding in Zimbabwe three years ago but that doesn't really count - I was only there for four days) and we weren't just coming for a visit - we were coming for two years.

Coming from Jakarta - where I had spent the previous four and a half years - to Freetown was a huge change, to put it mildly. Jakarta is a massive international city where one can live very comfortably (unless you're really poor, in which case it can be hell). We had a nice apartment, a great social life, access to great food and the beautiful island of Bali was less than a two hour flight away.

Nevertheless, we were both ready to leave Indonesia and decided that we wanted to go to Africa. We both work in development and we felt that it was important to come to this continent of oh so many challenges. After much discussion, we came up with a shortlist of African countries that we would be happy to go to (a very complex process be assured). To cut a long story short, Toshi ended up getting a job in Sierra Leone, then I got a job and things started falling into place and we then we were moving....

As I have described in an earlier post, getting to Freetown from the airport is a nightmare, but all things considered we had a pretty smooth transit from the airport to the heliport in Freetown. Flying over the beach in Freetown at sunset is a stunning experience and we were blown away by the beauty of the place.

Beautiful beaches

That's when things started to go downhill. We had been told that somebody from Toshi's office would be coming to pick us up to take us to our hotel. So we waited, and waited, and waited, until we were the only ones left at the heliport and it was getting dark and we had no clue where to go or what to do, we had no phones, no idea which hotel we were supposed to be staying in or even where the hell we were. One of the security guards took pity on us - these two hopeless foreigners who didn't know their ass from their elbow - and started calling around and eventually found someone who worked for UNDP who came to meet us and took us to a hotel.

The hotel was less hotel and more the kind of joint you rent out by the hour, smelly, dirty and unfriendly. With our less then warm welcome into the country I spent most of our first night in tears desperately trying to recall why it was that we had moved here.

But things got much better after that. We spent time on the beautiful beaches. We found an ok place to live, and figured out how to get water and power (some of the time).

Where we buy our fruit and vegetables

Walking through the market

We got a car and we braved the crazy Sierra Leonean traffic. We figured out where to buy decent fruit and vegetables and excellent seafood.

This is where we buy our seafood

And we've had a lot of fun here. This is not an easy place to live but we've figured out how (some) things work. I'm definitely a lot happier today than I was a year ago!

The view from our balcony after the rain

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dumpling, I love you....

The gyoza we made the other night reminded me just how much I love dumplings. Not that I had really forgotten mind you - any time I can get my hands on some of these tasty little morsels I do. These little guys make me so happy, they just seem to make everything ok.

But what is one talking about exactly, when one speaks of dumplings? Is it the Polish pierogi or uszka or the Japanese gyoza, the Italian ravioli or tortellini, the Russian pelmeni, the Chinese wonton or xiaolongbao, the Korean mandu, the Indian samosa, the Tibetan momo, the Ukrainian varenyky - the list goes on, and on - and that's just for the filled siblings of the dumpling family. Then there are their unfilled cousins - the gnocchi, kopytka, matzah balls, kartoffelknodel - and many, many others.

So what is the definition of a dumpling? And where does the humble dumpling come from?

There is by no means any agreement on the origin of the dumpling. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the dumpling is "a term of uncertain origin, which first appeared in print at the beginning of the 17th century, although the object it denotes - a small and usually globular mass of boiled or steamed dough - no doubt existed long before that." According to the same book however, Chinese records of dumplings go back as far as the Sung dynasty (AD 960 - 1279). Tim Wu on the other hand, in his excellent dumpling manifesto writes that Chinese people have been enjoying dumplings since at least the first century AD when, according to legend, Doctor Zhang Zhongjing invented them. Zhang supposedly discovered dumplings while researching Chinese medicine. The dumplings, the story goes, were a cure for both typhoid and frostbitten ears, which is why, they say, dumplings resemble ears.

Some excellent gyoza we had at senmonten gyoza restaurant in Kyoto, their slogan is 'it's just gyoza, but it's gyoza'

The dumpling can be plain, or filled. The filling may be sweet, or savory. They could be boiled, steamed, fried, or baked. Served in a broth, or with a dipping sauce or other condiment, such as sour cream.

For me however, in order to make me really happy, the dumpling should be filled and savory (there is a place for the sweet dumpling - sure - but it's secondary). I totally agree with Wu when he writes in his dumpling manifesto about a 'magic ratio' which is "the perfect ratio of protein to carbohydrate". He goes on to say that "the right ratio seem to activate some kind of pleasure centre in the brain, bringing about calm and quiet elation."

Pierogi with sauerkraut that my aunt made for Christmas in Poland

It must be going back a couple of years now but while we were living in Jakarta we had a 'celebration of the humble dumpling' at our place. We invited friends and asked everyone to bring some type of dumpling along. We ended up having around ten different types of dumplings.

Toshi sticking dumplings together for our dumpling party in Jakarta

If you ask me what my favorite dumpling is - I would have to say it's the Polish uszka (dumplings with mushroom), with a tie for second place by the Polish pierogi filled with sauerkraut and the pierogi with potato and cheese. My dad makes the best uszka and my mum makes the best pierogi - in the whole world, I'm telling you - and I've tried A LOT. They are so damn good. I love them most the second day, when you fry up the left over dumplings in butter.

Some of the dumplings at our 'celebration of the humble dumpling'

A Japanese friend making gyoza for our dumpling party in Jakarta

Toshi doesn't agree with me of course, although he loves pierogi, his favorite are gyoza. I guess it's about what one grows up with.

But it's far too early to declare any winners, we have so many more dumplings to try first.

Some great articles about dumplings:

The dumpling manifesto
Beyond Potstickers: A Dumpling Lover's Confession by Deb Perelman
Potstickers: In one small package, these dumplings link the past to present, rich to poor, mother to daughter
Is my blog burning: Potstickers
What are Chinese dumplings?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Italy vs Japan

It has long been my opinion that Italian and Japanese are the top two cuisines in the world. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that most of our ex-pat friends in Sierra Leone are also from Italy or Japan.

Because there is a shortage of fun things to do in Freetown and the restaurant scene is quite limited (to put it mildly) we regularly have dinner parties for our friends on our balcony (definitely the best feature of the house we live in) from which there is a beautiful view and a stunning sunset.

The view from our balcony

Last night we had one for friends who were still around during the Easter break - the theme for the night - you guessed it, Japanese and Italian food. Toshi and I get a bit competitive at times and treated the event like a battle of the two cuisines. You can call us team ramen gyoza. In case anyone had any doubts about the high standing of the Japanese kitchen, Toshi was carrying around that newsweek magazine, which features Japan as the food capital of the world.

In total there were around 20 of us - Japanese friends mainly from UNDP and JICA and Italians from UNDP and also our neighbor Alessandro and his friends visiting him from Italy (including Gianandre - the food critic from Italy - as if our sense of competition wasn't fierce enough already!!). Oh, and we do allow other nationalities, like me for example.

Team Italy and Japan relaxing before the game

Most people brought something along - among others from team Italy we had rigatoni with shrimp, porcini and cream, tortellini in a tomato sauce and pizza. From team Japan we had chirashi zushi from Kuge san and from team ramen gyoza (that's Toshi and me in case you forgot) we were supposed to have ramen but after one and a half days of cooking this complex broth, unfortunately the weather was too hot and the soup turned sour while cooling down. Very, very upsetting. Turn to Plan B - because we had already made the ramen noodles - we decided to make hiyashi chuka - noodles summer style, we also had gyoza (Japanese dumplings), nasu dengaku (aubergine with miso) and for dessert I made two tarts, one coffee flavored and one green-tea flavored.

Team Italy tasting the food

It was excellent - even if I do say so myself. We were a little too busy to take proper pictures of the food, which is a shame. Gianandre the food critic was particularly impressed with the gyoza.

Gianandre and me

Hiyashi Chuka recipe

If you can buy good quality ramen noodles use these, we can't - so we made our own.

For the noodles (this will make 4 servings)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt - a teaspoon
  • Water (start with three tablespoons, and add a little more as needed)
  1. Beat the egg and water together
  2. Mix flour and salt together
  3. Add egg mixture to flour mixture
  4. Mix and knead until smooth and glossy
  5. Cover in plastic wrap and let rest in fridge for 30 minutes
  6. Roll through pasta maker until thin and cut into reasonably fine noodles, or divide the dough into smaller pieces, roll out until thin, roll up and cut into reasonably fine noodles.
  7. Boil water, cook (only takes a few minutes) so that they are still quite firm between the teeth. Nothing worse than a soggy noodle.
  8. Drain, and quickly dunk in an iced bath - the noodles should be served very cold. They should be cooked not too long before serving.
For the condiments
  • Cucumbers, seeds removed, cut into thin strips
  • Ham, cut into thin strips
  • Eggs - cooked into a thin omelet, cut into thin strips
  • Tomato, seeds removed, cut into thin strips
For the sauce
  • Soy sauce (1 part)
  • Mirin (1 part)
  • Rice vinegar (1 part)
  • Sesame oil (1 part)
Toshi giving a tutorial on how to make hiyashi chuka sauce

To serve:
  1. Place cooked, cooled noodles on plate
  2. Nicely place the condiments on top of the noodles
  3. Squeeze some karashi (Japanese mustard) on the side of the plate
  4. Allow people to serve themselves, pouring on the sauce individually
  5. It's also really good with Japanese mayonnaise (kewpi brand)
It should look something like this

I pinched this picture from here

Gyoza recipe

These were so damn good, they disappeared in a flash.

This recipe will make around 50 pieces.

If you can buy ready-made gyoza wrappers, do so, they tend to be pretty good. We can't - so had to make our own.

For the wrappers:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup boiling water
  1. Mix flour and salt
  2. Pour in the boiling water
  3. Mix up as much as possible (watch out it's hot!)
  4. Get it into something resembling a ball
  5. Cover and let rest for 1 hour
  6. Knead for a few minutes, until smooth.
  7. Divide the dough into 4 parts
  8. Roll each part into a thin log so that you can cut each one into around 12 pieces
  9. Each small piece then needs to be rolled out into a thin circle
For the filling:
  • 200 grams ground pork (I can't get this so I used bacon instead)
  • 200 grams shrimps
  • I also had some leftover cooked chicken so I threw that in too - you could really play around with the meat content - use beef if you don't like pork, up to you really
  • 1 1/2 cups of cabbage - shredded and then blanched so it softens a little bit
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 3cm piece of ginger
  • 3 teaspoons of soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of sesame oil
  • 1/2 cup of chopped spring onion/scallion
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Mix everything in a food processor - not too much, so that it still has some texture
  2. Put a spoonful of filling inside wrapper, fold wrapper in half and seal closed.
For the dipping sauce:
  • 1 part soy sauce
  • 1 part rice vinegar
  • A few drops of layu (sesame and chili oil)
To cook:
  1. In a hot frying pan, add a small amount of oil
  2. Put gyoza inside, cook until the bottom is browned
  3. Add enough water, so that it comes about half way up the height of the gyoza
  4. Place lid on top of frying pan, steam until all water has evaporated
  5. You may need to add a little more oil at the end to help remove the gyoza from the frying pan (depending on the frying pan)
  6. Serve immediately with dipping sauce
They should look something like this:

I pinched this picture from here

Nasu Dengaku recipe
  • Aubergine/eggplant (the long Japanese ones if you can get them, if not, any type will do)
  • Miso (white - although it's actually yellow)
  • Mirin
  1. Bash the aubergine against your kitchen base and then roll around a bit so that the insides become soft.
  2. Cut in half
  3. Bake in oven on baking sheet - 20 minutes, cut side down, turn over - then cook for a further 20 minutes
  4. Mix miso and mirin (3 parts miso, 1 part mirin)
  5. Remove aubergine from oven
  6. Spread miso paste over the cut side of the aubergine
  7. Put aubergine back in oven (cut side facing up) for another 15 minutes
  8. Serve immediately
It should look something like this:

I pinched this picture from here

Coffee/green tea tart recipe

For the pastry

Use your favorite sweet pastry recipe, or:
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 egg white
  1. With a mixer, beat the butter until softened, add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add egg - mix until just incorporated. Add flour and mix until the dough forms a ball.
  2. Flatten dough into a disk, cover with plastic wrap and put in fridge for 30 minutes.
  3. Roll out the dough on a floured surface until it reaches desired size.
  4. Roll dough onto your rolling pin and unroll on top of your tart pan, pressing gently into bottom and sides of pan. Prick the bottom of the dough. Cover and chill for 30 minutes.
  5. Place in a hot oven and bake for around 20 minutes until gently golden brown.
  6. Brush hot pastry with egg white.
For the filling
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 egg yolks, beaten
  • 3/8 cup white sugar
  • Ground coffee (3/4 tablespoon) or green tea leaves (1 1/2 tablespoons)
  1. Pour milk into saucepan, add coffee or tea leaves
  2. Heat until just boiling, turn heat off, let stand a while to develop flavor
  3. Strain milk mixture through a fine sieve
  4. Mix eggs and egg yolks
  5. Slowly pour in the milk mixture into egg mixture, whisking the entire time until everything is blended together
  6. Add sugar, mix
  7. Pour mixture into the pastry case
  8. Bake in medium oven until filling is set
  9. Cool before serving
Sorry no pictures of this one!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ade's Ikan Pepes (steamed herbed fish in banana leaves)

Ade and I met in 2002 when we were both working for the World Bank in Jakarta. We were conducting research in conflict affected areas of Indonesia so we spent quite a lot of time traveling together around the country. She used to try and scare me with stories about witchcraft as we would drive at night through deserted villages - she succeeded most of the time. She left Indonesia for a while to complete her graduate studies in the UK but then came back and we worked for the same organization again - UNDP.

That's Ade on the left

Ade performing

Ade is also an incredibly talented jazz singer. Did I mention this girl is also a kick ass cook?

This is Ade's delicious ikan pepes recipe
  • Prepare steamer, so that it is hot and ready to go
  • If you want to grill rather than steam, use more layers of banana leaves
You will need:
  • Banana leaves (enough to cover fish fillets) - if you can't get these, I have used aluminium foil successfully (although it doesn't look as nice).
  • Your favorite fish (fillets or with bone) as many portions as you need.
For the marinade:
  • Ginger - grated
  • Juice of fresh lemon
For the herb paste
  • 2 parts shallots/red onions
  • 1 part Garlic
The amounts of the following ingredients are to taste - depending on the amount of fish
  • Galanga
  • Turmeric
  • Red/bird’s eye chillis
  • Candle nut (or kemiri)
  • Tamarind
  • Palm Sugar (or brown if palm sugar unavailable)
  • Salt
  • Thai Basil
  • Lemon grass (the ends well-bruised)
  • Tomato (crushed, seeds removed)
  1. Wash banana leaves and wipe dry
  2. Lightly and evenly grill the leaves over a low flame (maybe you could put in oven to soften) just until they are pliable and will not break when folded.
  3. It's important to use more than one layer of banana leaves - you need to have a few layers to form a strong parcel to cover the fish.
  4. After cleaning the fish, marinate in ginger and lemon mixture for around 30 minutes.
  5. Now for the herb paste - this can be done with a pestle and mortar or in a processor. It is important that the texture remains rough. Do not process until completely smooth.
  6. In your pestle and mortar or in your processor combine the following: shallots, garlic, galanga, turmeric, chili, candle nut, tamarind, palm sugar and salt.
  7. Once you have achieved a textured paste, add thai basil, lemon grass and tomato.
  8. Drain the marinated fish.
  9. Gently massage herb paste onto fish.
  10. Lay out the banana leaves, place fish on top of leaves and fold length-wise, fold in the edges to make parcel.
  11. Steam or grill.
This is sort of what they should look like - but depends on the size of your fish of course.

I pinched this picture from here

Friday, March 21, 2008

Little Japan in Freetown

On Wednesday we were invited to a Japanese tea ceremony by Kuge san, the head of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Sierra Leone. His mum is visiting him from Japan and very kindly held a tea ceremony for his friends and colleagues. Kuge san's mother has been a master of tea ceremonies for thirty years. This is an art which requires many years of training - there are so many rules in tea ceremony, not only for the master but also for the guests, for example when and how to hold the cup, and where to place the cup and sweets on the table, what to say and so on.

The whole thing from start to finish took around an hour. The actual drinking of the tea took around five minutes - the rest of the time was spent on the preparation and closing of the ceremony. It was really lovely. One thing that struck me when I looked around at Sierra Leonean colleagues was that that this whole thing must seem totally bizarre to them. When 70% of the population live under the poverty line and struggle daily to get food on the table, this way of spending time must appear to be completely bonkers to them - which is understandable.

Another thing I noticed was the amazing attention to detail during the tea ceremony. This is something that blows me away every time I go to Japan - in terms of presentation of food and subtlety of flavors, the absolute focus on the integrity of ingredients and impeccable service. We were just reading the newsweek magazine article about Tokyo now being the new food capital of the world - as if we didn't know that already!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Is rose the new red for the tropics?

I don't know about you but until now I have thought of rose as a bit of a girly wine that is drunk by those who don't really like wine. The roses I have tried in the past (which let's be honest have not been very many) has tended to be sweet fruity junk leaving me unsatisfied and suffering from heartburn.

While there is no doubt a whole load of crap rose out there, I realize just how unfair I have been to relegate all rose into one category of crapness. Rose, I apologize, please forgive me.

Why the change of heart you may ask. It all started on our second day in Marrakech when we noticed that almost everybody around us (those that were drinking wine anyway) was drinking rose. We were then having lunch at the lovely Le Grand Cafe de la Poste, happily eavesdropping on fellow diners when we overheard a conversation about the high quality of Moroccan rose. The eccentric French architect who was staying in the same riad as us confirmed that Moroccan rose was definitely the way to go, especially as a warm climate wine. Not as heavy as red but still presenting some characteristics of a decent red. Toshi and I are dedicated red drinkers, not to say that we won't occasionally have the odd glass (or bottle) of a decent white wine, but generally we stick to red - we just prefer it. Drinking red wine in the tropics however doesn't always make sense, it's just too heavy much of the time in the oppressive heat and especially so when you only have access to a very limited range of wine.

Our riad

There was only one thing to do of course. We set out immediately to the closest place that served wine, the absolutely lovely La Maison Arabe, which was luckily only two minutes walk away, and ordered a bottle of Medaillon Rose Syrah (and a really delicious lemon curd tart). This wine is like a light red, comparable to beujoulais but milder and more fruity, not sweet, but darker and heavier than any rose I've seen before and it was DELICIOUS. We tried several other roses during this trip, most were excellent, one was terrible, but the Medaillon Rose was the winner in our books by far.
We brought three bottles back with us but sadly it's all gone now. Rose prospects are not looking good here in Freetown and now it's going to be hard to go back to red. Rose really is the new red for the tropics. Maybe we can convince one of the Lebanese supermarket owners to import some decent bottles - you never know.

Another hot weather favorite for us is half and half (pronounced with a heavy french accent like ef-en-ef). It's half white wine, half sparkling wine. This was introduced to us by a Belgian friend in Brussels.

Now, what are we going to drink tonight...?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

And we're back...

As soon as we arrived in Casablanca it already started to feel like we were back. Delayed flights, no information about delayed flights or when we might actually be leaving, and lots of shouting, pushing and shoving. And there was no helicopter when we arrived - so we had to get the ferry across to Freetown (remember that hell I mentioned not long ago...) - anyway, we're back.

Marrakech was amazing - I swear it's the Bali of North Africa (without the sea). It is an absolutely stunning city with fantastic food. I could go back many times, heck I could easily live there. The food was a warm welcome after the mediocrity of Egyptian cuisine (sorry Egyptian friends... I'm sure there is some good stuff out there, I just didn't find it).

Sunset near Djemaa el-Fna square

Food stalls in Djemaa el-Fna square

The snail guy

Eating snails from the snail guy - actually these were pretty awful, nothing against snails but these didn't taste good.

My kind of food - bread, potato, egg, oil and chili sauce

Delicious mint tea

In the souk

Overwhelmed by slippers

These little guys were delicious - tajine full of yummy vegetables, stock, and.. cow's gut

A cooking class with Fatiha

Making cous-cous. I hereby swear to never make instant cous-cous again.

Our evening feast

We stocked up on spices

You won't get fresher chicken than this

See the guys still alive on the back shelf